Fire Administration to start its own probe

The nation's premier firefighting authority plans to conduct an intensive case study of the Sofa Super Store blaze, joining a crowded field of agencies dissecting the June 18 inferno that killed nine Charleston firefighters.

The U.S. Fire Administration plans to compile a report about the West Ashley blaze to help fire departments across the nation avoid a similar tragedy. Those lessons eventually will be weaved into the curriculum at the National Fire Academy in Maryland, where some 8,000 students undergo firefighter training each year.

Ken Farmer, who oversees the fire administration's prevention and leadership section, will lead the case study team in Charleston.

"We are not trying to judge them or take any shots, we just want to get these

lessons learned back into the coursework," Farmer said. "Our goal is for no fire department to suffer this kind of loss."

Charlie Dickinson, deputy administrator of the organization, recently asked Mayor Joe Riley to grant the team permission to collect information on the blaze, the furniture store's history and various aspects of the city's fire and emergency services. Riley said he intends to honor that request in hopes that some good can come from Charleston's tragedy. "This is what we are committed to do," Riley said. "This is something we have a responsibility to do."

The blaze has been widely discussed in the fire service, and a number of state, local and federal agencies are probing everything from the fire's origin to the Charleston Fire Department's handling of the incident. Some investigations are expected to last six months to a year.

The U.S. Fire Administration has conducted case studies on some 160 fires over the past two decades. The primary consideration for deciding which fires to study is based on whether the work will identify significant "lessons learned."

Farmer said the team will focus on any "challenges" that the firefighters may have faced that night. They will examine the department's operating procedures and look at whether actions on the scene contributed to risks faced by firefighters.

Farmer said he already expects one factor — "how a fairly simple fire turned so ugly" — will emerge as a cautionary tale in the fire service for decades to come.

He said some of his group's work will overlap investigations by other federal agencies looking at the fire, but the different groups are accustomed to sharing information while recognizing that each has a unique role.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is working with state and local police to investigate the cause of the fire. The city has appointed a six-member team of experts, led by former Shreveport (La.) Fire Chief Gordon Routley, to the evaluate the fire department's practices and procedures. State labor investigators are reviewing workplace safety issues at the fire. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is examining what factors led to the firefighters' deaths.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, based in Gaithersburg, Md., also is analyzing the blaze to determine why the fire spread so rapidly, why the building quickly collapsed and whether sprinklers could have saved lives. National Institute experts will use a computer model to reconstruct the blaze in a simulation.

The agency has previously studied such catastrophes as the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island that killed 100 people during a concert by Great White.

"Obviously, this is a tragedy we'd like some answers to so we can do our best to prevent something like it in the future," agency spokesman Michael E. Newman said. "Losing nine firefighters in one event is fairly unprecedented. ... The situation literally begs us to do something and lend our expertise to the mix."